Friday, April 11, 2014

Smytty And Those Oilers

 I grew up a Stan Mikita fan. Mikita, for you young pups, was one of the all time greats. Think Pavel Datsuyk but with even more offence, a playmaker and goalscorer who could do it all, kill penalties, win faceoffs, check. When he retired he was the third leading scorer of all time and he did most of that work in the sixties when he was probably the game's best all round player.

 My old man was a Max Bentley man as a boy, Dad was the oldest of six, five boys in there, and a lot of his boyhood was spent doing what the oldtimers did as boys, the Canadian ideal that is fondly recalled now. They had no television, no computers, they lived in the Soo and then a tiny village called Franz, perched on the Canadian Shield in the midst of the wilderness, literally in the bush, and then Wawa and when they weren't in school or doing chores they played hockey, no matter how cold.

They didn't have a lot of money. At a family reunion years ago my uncles talked about the time they got a case of carnation milk and what a big deal it was and my favourite story my Dad tells is about when he was very young, maybe four, and his old man, my grandfather, walked him down the hill in the Soo. They stopped outside a store and there was a bright red wagon in the window and my grandfather asked his oldest son what he thought of it and my Dad said he told his father he liked it a lot and then my grandfather told him it was his and, well I wish I had a picture, when my Dad told me the story a few years back, he was pushing eighty then, and his eyes grew wide with wonder as he laughed and said this is what I looked like and it was beautiful, a boy's wonder suddenly erasing nearly eighty years in his craggy face. And his dad went in and bought the wagon and my old man got into it and he got towed home up the hill.

 Sorry, its almost like I've had a few beers here with the rambling.

 Anyhow Dad and his brothers were all very good hockey players, they each had their team and Dad was the Hawks and Bentley was his man. Dad patterned his game after his idol (or maybe that's just the way he played), he was fast and a skilled playmaker and he could score as well. Years later he and his brother Gerald were scouted by the Red Wings, hilariously Dad said he was disappointed that it was the Wings because he was a Chicago fan.

 After Bentley was moved away the Hawks were terrible for a long while until two kids came along, Mikita and Hull, Hull was the more famous of the two, the flamboyant goal scorer with the huge shot but Dad became a Mikita man and so too did I when I started following hockey as a boy. By that time he was on the downside of his career and we only got one game a week, Saturday nights, so I only probably saw him play a dozen times live. But he was my Dad's favourite and so he was my favourite too. I even have his book 'I Play To Win', the boy is reading it now and I have heard stories in recent years that paint the man as a wonderful guy, down to earth, just a lovely fellow and that makes me feel pretty good too.

 After Mikita retired I remained a Hawks' fan for nearly another twenty years. Larmer was my favourite player during this time period, him and Gretzky, but I took to neither as much as I did to Mikita and I took to neither as much as I did to Ryan Smyth.


 If you have visited this blog for any length of time you will know how Bill Wirtz killed my love of the Hawks, bit by bit, until all of it was gone, hollowed out by that miserable old man and the equally miserable Bob Pulford. It wasn't a conscious choice, it was wholly organic, my change of allegiance. I had always liked the Oilers, had loved the way they played the game in the eighties all go-go skill and speed, that elan that all of the greatest teams have. And so as the nineties marched on and they gathered a team of kids who would work and work and work (though often with little result) I began to pay attention to them again. They had Dougie Weight and Bill Guerin of course but the guy who symbolized those clubs was Ryan Smyth.

 Now Ryan Smyth was a hell of a hockey player. People look at the fourth liner now whose wheels are gone or think of the things that make Smyth an icon and they forget that he could skate and that he could make plays and that he had terrific hockey sense. You don't play in three best on best tournaments for Canada (winning an Olympic gold and a World Cup gold) unless you're an amazing hockey player.

 That's the ironic thing. People forget this fact. Even when he was at the top of his game and he and the Oilers parted ways there were mutterings, the usual bullshit from the enablers of this broken management team, that Smyth wasn't even really a first line winger.

 I used to believe that this type of thinking was an Oilers' fan thing, for a fanbase that had witnessed one of the greatest, if not the greatest team ever assembled, no player could be good enough. How can you live up to Gretzky and Messier and Kurri and company after all? The reality though is that a generation brought up on video games and highlights at eleven seems to think that a good player can (and should) score at will and do so by dancing through a team and then follow that by filling in the other team's best player. Smyth, even in his prime, wasn't that guy. He did a lot of big things well and he did all of the little things superbly.

 What made Smyth an icon though wasn't the fact that he had such great tools, though obviously that helped, it was how he approached the game, how he played it, that is what made him beloved. And it is why I became a huge fan of his and how one day, watching Chicago play Edmonton (it was 98 or 99) I realized that I was cheering for the Oilers and that actually I was no longer a Chicago fan. So its because of Ryan Smyth that I am an Oilers' fan. Its his goddamned fault!


 Smytty could skate and make and take a pass but his shot was a muffin and yet he became a goal scorer. He scored almost all of his goals from within a few feet of the net, banging in rebounds and deflecting shots from the point with his old wooden paddle, his legs, his big beautiful hockey ass, all the while taking abuse that make you wonder how he lasted all of these years. He did the dirty work in front of the net and in the corners and along the boards and he learned how to play at both ends of the rink until he became an excellent two way player and penalty killer. He loved to play, he was an old time rink rat with that amazing mullet and the Nuke LaLoosh responses to interviewers, he was a hockey player through and through and he became beloved, I think, because he did things that anyone could do. I talked about this recently. Your Joe Beerleaguer can't do what Ales Hemsky does and so he cannot identify with him but anyone could do what Ryan Smyth did and so he was an everyman, a guy who its hard to find a comparable for, an elite grinder who drove play and put up points.

 Smyth should have been an Oiler for life and when Lowe botched it and sent him away for magic beans it was really the end of the Little Team That Could, that crew of players who played fast and hard nosed, with that elan of old, if not the skill, the group that competed for the playoffs year after year despite the annual diaspora of the most expensive players on the team. Smith, Niinimaa, Brewer, Staios, Pisani, Mironov, Horcoff, Hemsky, Weight, Guerin, Comrie, Arnott, Stoll, Torres, Moreau, Murray, Marchant, Grier, Cleary, Ulanov, Salo, Joseph, Carter. Some were great players, some were journeymen. Some went on to win Cups elsewhere (they always win them elsewhere) and others faded away and many of them went on that long run in the spring of 2006, the last time the Oilers meant anything. 2006 to me will always be Roloson battling, the madman, and Pisani scoring so many enormous goals and Hemsky finishing off the greatest team of our generation and Smyth, teeth smashed. setting up Horcoff in the third overtime to cue the comeback against the Sharks.

 Afterwards Ron Wilson sneered when asked about Smyth, saying it was no big deal, and the reality is it wasn't because that was not ultimate Ryan Smyth but the usual Ryan Smyth.

 And now he is gone, just weeks after Ales Hemsky and months after Horcoff. Ladi Smid is gone too and so the Oilers finish the year out of the playoffs, as is standard now. Four more NHL players out the door and nothing to show for them but Philip Larsen, magic beans and cap space, business as usual for the Edmonton Oilers.

With Smyth and Hemsky gone all that remains are a bunch of losers and while that sounds harsh its the honest truth. Nobody on the team has won a damn thing in Oiler colours, hell none of them have played a game that matters and that goes for most of the roster period with the exception of Andrew Ference, who like all of these guys is probably wondering what the hell he has gotten himself into.

 Yakupov's season was a mess and the fanbase wants to run Jeff Petry out of town and Sam Gagner is probably a goner too, following Smid out of town, remember when they were the future? I remember rumours of rifts in the room years ago, I don't pay much attention to rumours or claims of fans (or media) who know what is going on in the room or how a guy is in the room. Ales Hemsky was a 'problem' and yet two years ago his teammates stood up one after and another unsolicited and said that he should be extended and I have seen an email from a teammate of his lauding him for staying after practices and working with him on the finer points of his craft. That never got into the papers though, funny that.

 That said I always did wonder what guys like Moreau and Staios thought when guys like Gagner and Nilsson and others waltzed in and got their dough right away when they had played for relative peanuts for a decade before they got their money, doing the dirty work while the golden boys floated. Its years later and Sam Gagner still can't check his hat and while I'm sure he's a fine young man (I guess, who knows?) that speaks to something. Maybe he's dumb though I doubt it. Maybe he doesn't care? I don't know.

 But when you got used to watching Smyth and Moreau and Gator and Niinimaa and Grier then watching this group of Oilers cashing their huge cheques all the while playing matador dummy defence is certainly hard to take at times.

 Another year down the toilet and the team has taken a step back and next year looks like more kids on D which never works. The team is too thin up front to send anyone anywhere for that stud Dman they need and the free agent market is poor as well so it may be the tact they take and while the goaltending is fixed or so it seems the forward depth has gone from a strength to another point of concern especially where Gagner and Yakupov are concerned. So when Gord Miller said that it might get worse next year he could be right.

 Ryan Smyth should have gone wire to wire as an Oiler. He did not and that's a shame. He was a winner though and he squeezed every ounce he could out of the talent that he had and he loved the Oilers and Edmonton, actually arranging a trade back to the Oilers.

 Just for that he's one in a million.

 Best wishes you mulleted toothless fat ass rink rat. Thanks for the memories. Wish we had won it in 2006, watching you raise the Cup would have been the thrill of a lifetime for this hockey fan.


Mr DeBakey said...

"Smyth should have been an Oiler for life and when Lowe botched it and sent him away for magic beans it was really the end of the Little Team That Could"

Referring back to your MSM storyteller post.
The day after Smitty was given to the Islanders, Stauffer & Spec confidently told us all that if "Smyth is your best player, you aren't good enough".
Stauffer was covering for Lowe as usual - and has never stopped.

Shawn Webster said...

Thanks Pat for the tribute to my favourite Oiler of the past 15 years (sorry for some cut and paste but I am a lazy old guy...older than you believe it or not). He is the perfect example of what made the old Oiler teams that never won anything, so easy to cheer for… no money, hard to play against, small market, hit everything that moved, stitches in the hallway, etc.

In other words…everything we are now……..not

I respected and admired Ryan.

My daughter loved Ryan.

She was born in 1986 and so Ryan was the star when she was becoming of age The 2006 run was a Edmonton moment, but it was a family moment for us…0ur whole family was able to attend eyery home game. Magic

The next spring, on the way to the Mark Messier ceremony, we were listening on the radio as first Ryan was going to be signed, essentially, to be an Oiler for life, but ultimately was traded thanks to “you now who”.

She has since married, and moved to Burlington Ontario

Last fall, we moved her remaining items out of our house to Burlington.

Among them….a live size Ryan Smyth Promo poster and a signed stick from the Mullet.

First hockey love….always the sweetest

PS. My daughter loves your blog as do I. Please keep up the excellent work. I post rarely but read always


Muji said...

Well said. I'll miss Smytty dearly.

God those scrappy Oilers teams (Weight, Guerin, Smyth, Joseph, Marchant, Grier, Niinimaa, Salo, Pisani, Horcoff, Hemsky, and on and on) were fun. You knew they would eventually get beat - usually by Dallas in the 1st round - but it was a thrill cheering them on. Like that Seinfeld episode where Kramer and the car salesman drive that car on the freeway until it runs out of gas. When I cheered for those guys (and I was a young teenager at the time), I really felt like I was cheering for the "good guys".

And then 2006. Man. It felt like the hockey gods were vindicating us after all those years of watching our stars leave for greener and more pro$sperous pastures.

Since then? It's been tough. We've had to make up narratives (there's that word again) to convince ourselves to keep cheering for these scrubs. The Kid Line (Gagner, Nilsson, Cogliano). The redemption of Patrick O'Sullivan and Gilbert Brule (seriously, eww). The New Kid Line (MPS, Eberle, Hall). Schultz aka Coffey 2.0. Does RNH have the best hockey sense since 99?! Yakupov's the leader of the next wave of great Russians. The great motivational speaker/coach Ralph Krueger. The great innovative Dallas Eakins! We're just 1 elite dmen (Klefbom, Nurse, Ekblad) from everything coming together. And on and on.

I can't take it anymore. Please bring back the fun. I'll miss you Smytty.

Jana said...

Ryan Smyth leaving spawned Oilersnation. Something good always comes out of something bad. As for the deal that sent Smyth away, it takes two. I was sad when he left but your players can't control the team.
I can only hope some of those kids on Saturday saw what Smyth did as an Oiler, how beloved he was and how there wasn't a dry eye in the rink because of what he represented - everything good about the Oilers and a time where they overcame all the odds and went all the way to the final game.
Ryan's retirement is the end of an era. I can only hope this summer gives us Oiler fans something to cheer for.